Autumnal musings

Richard Keeling talks about what’s going on.

A day or two before the Fulham match, I noticed that there were still a few tickets available in the Witton Lane stand so I decided to get one for myself and one for a younger friend, who I generally treat to the day out. That set me back £102, so visits to Villa Park, for one OAP at least, are likely to become even less frequent. I like the view from the Witton Lane stand but seats in most other parts of the ground don’t seem to be much cheaper. I suppose the price per match is considerably less if you are a season ticket holder, which I don’t aspire to be.

The economics of all this bemuse me. Years ago, when I studied the subject, I learned that if you put your prices up, demand for your product or service is likely to fall. There is also, I learned, something called demand elasticity, which is a measure of how sensitive demand is to changes in price. I suppose therefore that demand for Premier League football must be relatively inelastic. The ground would only be half full otherwise. It must be something to do with the fans’ loyalty to the club, especially at a time when, for once, we have people in charge who know what they are doing.

If you watch non-league football, as I sometimes do, you realise just what a quality product the Premier League is. Even so, the Premier League must surely be pushing fans’ loyalty to the limit. The thoughts of many Villa supporters on the new initiatives of the Terrace View and the Lower Grounds seem to bear out my opinion. While I was buying my tickets for the match, I recalled that, when my dad used to take me to the match in my schooldays, we had good seats in the Trinity Road stand for four shillings, or twenty pence, each. Admittedly the Villa weren’t up to much in the late fifties and early sixties, but I reckon a trip to the match was better value for money then than it is now. Or is it just that youthful enthusiasm has been overtaken by the cynicism of advancing years?

The recent King’s speech announced the Government’s intention to set up an independent football regulator. The subject has been around for a while, but an official announcement means that it is very likely to happen. The intention is “to safeguard the future of football clubs for the benefit of communities and fans.” There are plans to strengthen the tests for owners and directors and the regulator will also aim to prevent historic clubs going out of business, and to give fans greater input.

The Chair of the Football League, Rick Parry, said: “The football pyramid matters. It is a unique strength of the English game and something that must be protected and nurtured.” However, Gareth Southgate believes that “a football regulator is another VAR waiting to happen.’ Gareth is concerned that ‘we’re trying to find simple solutions to very complex problems.” Hmmm. A big question for me is whether the regulator will be able to get anywhere near the greed machine of the Premier League. I reckon the horse bolted a long time ago and the stable door will just stay swinging on its hinges.

The Premier League’s Financial Fair Play rules are a form of regulation that has been around for some time and Everton recently became a victim, with a ten-point deduction. The club described the decision as unjust and said it would appeal, while the fans are understandably upset. I wonder whether this is a show of force by the Premier League to try and pre-empt the scope of the independent football regulator. Perhaps the Premier League is trying to demonstrate that it is perfectly capable of governing itself.

It is noticeable that Manchester City stand accused of numerous breaches of the rules but that no action has yet been taken against them and their powerful owners, effectively the Abu Dhabi royal family. Likewise, Chelsea are being investigated by the Premier League and the FA for possible secret payments made by companies belonging to the club’s former owner, Roman Abramovich. The payments appear to have benefited the club without being declared in the annual accounts. Both Manchester City and Chelsea are wealthier and have higher profiles than Everton and it is going to be fascinating to see if anything at all emerges from these ongoing investigations.

It is also going to be intriguing to see just what impact the new regulator will have on keeping clubs solvent. If regulation just prevents smaller clubs from going out of business, I think it will serve a useful purpose. Never forget that the Villa had a narrow escape and were very close to a winding up order before Sawiris and Edens came along in 2018. Other clubs less successful than the Villa in avoiding the winding-up order in recent years have included Aldershot, Telford United, Scarborough and Halifax Town, to name just a few.

The trouble in my opinion stems from the top, the philosophy of the Premier League. When it is acceptable for billionaire tycoons, kleptocrats and even royal families to attempt to buy all the trophies rather than set up a league where spending is strictly limited and success depends much more on the ability of the staff and players, there will always be a temptation for ambitious clubs to spend well beyond what they can afford. Whether the Premier League will be off-limits for the regulator or not we will soon find out.

I drove to and from the Fulham match and, as usual, a vast number of cars were parked near the ground. My friend and I stayed till after the final whistle and there was awful traffic to negotiate for the drive home. I mention it because the COP28 talks are about to start in Dubai and football is one area that demonstrates just how little interest the powers-that-be have in doing anything significant about climate change. Even the venue in the oil-rich Gulf speaks volumes about the priorities of the participants.

The 2026 World Cup is due to be held in the USA, Canada and Mexico, which will ensure that plenty of fossil fuels are burned. Recently though, as an input to COP28, a State of the Cryosphere report was issued by the scientists of the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative. The cryosphere is an all-encompassing term for the portions of the earth’s surface where water is frozen. The report has a blunt message: ‘Two degrees is too high. We cannot negotiate with the melting point of ice’. The report is categorical that warming must be limited to 1.5 degrees above the pre-industrial level or the consequences will be severe.

You can check the quantity of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by googling the Keeling Curve. I can’t take credit for this initiative, but an American scientist called Charles David Keeling – no relation – was concerned about the potential build up of greenhouse gases as long ago as 1959 and set up an observatory in Hawaii which is still going strong.

Every airport is looking to expand, politicians in several countries have little time for green initiatives, and the high-profile sport of football snubs its nose at the science too. The mass of fossil fuel burning cars at Villa Park was merely a symptom. We may be living in the age of Artificial Intelligence, but the ruling elite hasn’t evolved since the caveman era: its priorities are still wealth, power, fighting and fornicating (nothing personal, Boris).

During a recent football phone-in, Robbie Savage (yes, I know. I agree) was asked if he thought the Villa would make the top four this season. His answer was an unequivocal no. As I write this, we are fifth and every Villa fan undoubtedly hopes we will maintain our upward momentum. The Forest result was a big disappointment though, while the second half of the Fulham match suggested to me that we might be running out of steam after playing two matches a week for so long.

Going three goals up gave us a good cushion, but the opportunity for the third goal was courtesy of a mistake by Fulham’s Antonee Robinson and I thought that not only were we second best throughout the second half but that we were flattered by the margin of victory. A team with more of a cutting edge than Fulham would have got something out of the match. The reports I read thought it was a comfortable, routine Villa win, so perhaps I have just been a Villa fan for too long and am always looking at the downside.

Anyway, as to whether we can make the top four, I hope so, but we are already punching well above our weight. The website Statista ranks Premier League clubs by revenue for the season 2021-22 (I presume the financial results for 2022-23 haven’t yet been made available). Villa ranked thirteenth by revenue two seasons ago with a turnover of £169 million. Manchester City turned over £619 million, Liverpool £594 million and Manchester United £583 million. Even Spurs at £443 million and Arsenal at £368 million were more than twice the size of Villa.

The Premier League has for years tended to show a close correlation between the size of the business and the club’s position in the league table. Of course, there are always a few clubs who punch above their weight and a few who struggle to meet expectations, but most of the top six have been raking in Champions’ League money for a long time now, which has to give them a considerable advantage. Still, not many people would have expected Villa to be fifth at the end of November, so you never know and I am hoping for the best.

We all know that Unai is a magician and I can’t possibly bring myself to agree with Robbie Savage.